The superintendent of schools in Reed Point, while not specifically denying claims of racism brought by a Native American couple last month, said he doesn’t believe that the staff member involved uttered a racial slur.
Mike Ehinger was reacting to claims made by Elsworth and Brandy GoesAhead, of Pryor, at a public forum in Billings last week during a visit by Meg Singer, the new indigenous justice outreach coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana. The claims were reported by Last Best News.
The GoesAheads said they were waiting to get into the gym at Reed Point High School On Jan. 21, where their son’s Plenty Coups High School team was to play basketball that evening. Players and coaches had already entered the gym, they said, but otherwise the doors were locked.
Then, they said in an email to Ehinger four days after the game, “one of the fans from the home team” arrived and walked around the GoesAheads and another Indian couple from Pryor, toward the door.
A woman inside the gym “came running up and opened it for the gentleman,” they said, and then the woman said “very clearly so we all could hear, ‘We don’t have any workers yet so we are only letting the white people in.’”
Ehinger, who provided the original email from the GoesAheads, also released his email response, also dated Jan. 24. In the email, he asked for more details, promised to investigate the matter and apologized that they felt mistreated, regardless of “the investigation and outcomes.”
On Wednesday, Ehinger wrote to Last Best News and the Billings Gazette, which also reported on the Feb. 9 forum, to give the school’s side of the story. He said he was “shocked and disheartened” by what he heard from the GoesAheads because the district works hard to “promote equality and fair treatment of all members of our community.”
Referring to the quote attributed to the staff member, whom he declined to identify, Ehinger said in the statement, “I believe this is what these parents believe they heard. However, I do not believe my staff member said that.”
Reed Point and Rapelje operate joint teams and activities, Ehinger said, and when players and coaches from Rapelje arrived for the game on Jan. 21, they were let in the door where the GoesAheads were waiting. Shortly after the team went in, he said, the Rapelje bus driver walked up to the door and was also let in, since drivers are treated the same as coaches and others working the game.
In his statement, Ehinger said the staff member didn’t remember saying anything to the waiting fans when she let the bus driver in. However, Ehinger added, “It is possible that staff member said something about letting in team people or staff people.”
“I have concluded that this staff member would not have said that we are only letting in white people,” Ehinger continued. “Such a statement would be completely out of character for the staff member and completely inconsistent with the experience I have had with the staff member. After reviewing this incident, I wonder if something was said that the waiting fans mistook to be an insult.”
In an interview with Last Best News, Ehinger said he reviewed surveillance tapes and confirmed that the bus driver, not a Reed Point fan, was the person who entered the gym while the GoesAheads were waiting outside.
Ehinger said he interviewed the bus driver, whom he declined to identify before getting his permission, and the driver told him he didn’t remember the staff member saying anything to the parents when she opened the door. Ehinger also said the driver is an enrolled member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma.
“I also want to note and object to the fact that no one in the media or the ACLU contacted the school before jumping to the conclusion that a racial slur had been made,” Ehinger said in the statement.
He continued: “Racism is terrible and something we must work together to wipe out. Working together means that all sides must be heard from before people’s reputations are damaged. I hope that we can all recognize this for the misunderstanding it is and move back to the stable, welcoming relations.”
At the forum in Billings, the ACLU’s Singer said she had sent a “demand letter” to the Reed Point school district. Ehinger said he received that letter on Friday, which asked for a formal apology, disciplining of the staff member and anti-bias training for all district employees.
“Frankly, if we were guilty, I wouldn’t hesitate on any one of those fronts,” Ehinger said.
He also said the district’s lawyer would be responding to the demand letter formally, using language similar to what Ehinger used in the public statement.
Singer’s said Ehinger’s “response is to say it isn’t happening. But if you talk to the GoesAheads and the other people involved, it is happening. It’s a real issue.”
Singer said she spoke to the other couple from Pryor but could not release their names without their permission.
Depending on what is included the district’s formal response, Singer said, “we will definitely discuss with the GoesAheads and the other people legal options available to them.”
Elsworth GoesAhead, reached Thursday evening while watching a basketball game in Huntley, said he and his wife and the other couple have no doubt what they heard in Reed Point.
“We stated that as fact and we stand behind it 100 percent,” he said. “It’s really hard to interpret a statement like that any other way.”